Last winter, Mom told me about a book she'd read. It's very interesting, she declared and this meant something to me because my mother, a voracious reader, has a high bar for literary praise. I bought the book immediately. The book: All Joy and No Fun; The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior. It was more than interesting. I loved it. I could not stop thinking about it. I posted a picture of the book on Instagram with a quote from the book I loved, one I believe in: "But mothering and fathering aren't just things we do. Being a mother or being a father is who we are."
Fast forward to this summer. My dear friend Tara Mandy, publisher of the fantastic parenting site Stroller Traffic, emailed me. Do you know Jen Senior? I responded quickly. No, but I would LOVE to. Before I knew it, Jennifer and I were emailing and I invited her to come for a Happier Hour. And this bestselling, translated-into-9-languages, critically-acclaimed, NY Mag writing, TED-Talking powerhouse agreed. Needless to say, I was thrilled.
The Happier Hour was last night and it was nothing short of amazing. As usual, my highlighter yellow living room was stuffed to the gills with intelligent and curious women, friends and colleagues and beyond. Jennifer spoke about her book and her work in such a humorous and eloquent way. The questions were excellent; the conversation rich. After, everyone lingered and nibbled and drank and bought books and talked to Jennifer and then I had to let her go back into the good world, but oh my, what a treat.
I sit here now at my big white kitchen island, sipping coffee, listening to my new favorite song on repeat ("Follow the Sun" by Xavier Rudd), staring into a screen. I'm tired because I didn't sleep much or well. What interfered with my rest was a swirl of ideas, of questions, of stories. This woman, this author, made me think. What an incredible privilege. So, I'm sitting here, racing the clock, always racing the clock, eager to distill the magic of last evening into words. That's hard. A tall order, but I will try. I will try because for every one of us who was in that yellow room last night, there are many of you who would have liked to be, who would have been blown away and inspired just as we were. And so. I will try.
Here are 10 takeaways from last night. There were so many more, but I figure this is a solid start. It should be noted that the following are my interpretation of what Jennifer said last night.
1. parenthood does not make us happier.
'Tis true. Study after study shows that parents are not happier than non-parents. In one study, women ranked vacuuming as a happier activity than parenting.
2. we should not try to engineer happiness for our kids.
No matter what parenting doctrine we heed, we all want the same thing: for our kids to be happy. But Senior notes that we might not be doing our kids a favor by trying to engineer happiness for them. Perhaps the best thing we can do is teach them how to be good, decent people and to work, set them up to live flourishing lives.
3. we will be happier if we pay close attention to division of labor.
I loved this bit of advice. Senior talked about how she and her husband have learned to communicate the details of their division of labor and needs in advance so resentment doesn't build. Jennifer will email her husband on a Monday to tell him that she needs four hours over the weekend (to write, call her mother, swim, etc).
4. modern parents are particularly vulnerable to parenting fads.
Research shows that we are all very vulnerable to parenting fads, that we are quick to switch up our approaches based on "trends" in parenting literature and debate. Cry it out or don't cry it out? Attach or free-range or Tiger It or helicopter? We are totally lost, eager for answers and so we cling to what's being talked and written about.
5. it makes perfect sense that we are lost.
In the world of modern parenting, there are no real norms. There are no rules. Women are working in record numbers, but also spending more time with their kids. Fathers are reporting higher than ever feelings of work-life tension. Because there are no strictures on how to parent, because there is so much freedom and choice, we are all kind of flailing.
6. We have two selves.
This is fascinating, I think. We all have two selves: the Experiencing Self and the Remembering Self. The Experiencing Self is the self that moves through the world and has experiences and feels things in real-time. For the Experiencing Self, parenting is often not fun at all. It can be stress-inducing and exhausting and discombobulating and boring. But the Remembering Self is the self that is the sum-total of our memories and is equally part of who we are. A great example Jennifer gave. The Experiencing Self might experience a 3am session with a fussy baby as hard and draining; this self might feel depressed and desperate for sleep. But the Remembering Self holds this as a poignant moment of closeness, of koala hugging tree, of almost divine connection, of joy.
7. Adolescence is harder for parents than it is for kids.
This is fascinating for me. And scary. Stay little, girls.
8. parenthood does add joy and meaning to our lives.
While parenthood does not necessarily make us happier, it does bring unparalleled joy and meaning to our lives. When people are asked what in life brings them most joy, most meaning, the vast majority of people say their kids.
9. joy is grief inside out.
Oh did this one get me. Jennifer described how joy can be hard. Maybe even harder than pain. Joy is hard because it entails deep, deep connection and right under the surface of joy is grief, loss. When we are so in it, when we experience a purity of connection with our kids, we are also aware, or close to an awareness, of the fact that we could lose them. This is heartbreaking. Joy is grief inside out. This makes so much sense to me and honestly chokes me up.
10. We must luxuriate in the now.
A friend of mine asked a wonderful question. I know this isn't a prescriptive parenting book, but given all the research you have done, what is one thing you have taken away and held onto as a mother? Jennifer thought about this and I loved her reply. She said that she reminds herself to luxuriate in the now. We must savor the time when our kids are young, when they cling to us and cherish us, because they will grow up and have the tools to criticize us and it will get harder and far more complicated. We must not rush things.
The Now. Here. Many of you know that this has become a near obsession of mine, this question of how to be here, how to soak in the present moment. Just this morning, I woke up and realized there was no coffee in the house. And so I made a very early trip to Starbucks and my littlest muse asked to come with me, so I took her. She wore her mismatched pajamas, hand-me-downs from her big sisters and her silver sparkle flats. And she held my hand and skipped along the sidewalk. It was still a bit dark and at one point she let go of my hand and started squealing, pointing up at the sky. "The moon! The brightest moon!" she crooned, blue eyes bright, smile wide. And I felt it: pure, unmarred joy. This is it, I thought. And we got our coffee and I bought her a chocolate milk box. And then I took this picture because I had to. Because this moment held within its frame is everything that matters.
I sit here. Overwhelmed in the absolute best sense of the world, deeply grateful for this life of mine. This life that I've inherited and made, this life of babies and books, of questions and conversation. Grateful for the smart, seeking women in my world, souls who come here and offer themselves and their stories.
Jennifer, you are one of these women. Thank you. Thank you for the work you have done, the words you have written, the talks you have given and will continue to give, for making all of us think in new ways about a topic of tremendous importance to all of us.